16. November 2015 · Kommentare deaktiviert für Eritrean refugee ​radio ​hotline​ gears up for looming winter ​ · Kategorien: Eritrea · Tags:

Quelle: The Guardian

Show host Meron Estefanos helps refugees navigate everything from the perilous Mediterranean sea crossing to Europe’s complex asylum process

They don’t realise how cold it can get, sleeping in a tent. But you go with whatever you can afford,” says Meron Estefanos of the impending winter weather soon to hit refugees stranded across Europe. “When you’re desperate, what else can you do?”

Estefanos, an activist turned journalist, runs a show on Radio Erena which has become a lifeline for many Eritreans who have escaped the repressive regime. Many have since made the perilous sea crossing to European shores, and now find themselves stuck in limbo navigating complex asylum processes.

As the temperature drops, the refugee crisis remains Europe’s political hot potato. Leaders met in Brussels over the weekend to thrash out pre-winter plans for the safety of hundreds of thousands of displaced people trying to reach Germany and Scandinavia before the cold really begins to bite.

“Every day counts,” European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, said ahead of the meeting. “Otherwise we will soon see families in cold rivers in the Balkans perish miserably.”

Those risking the Mediterranean crossing from North Africa face treacherous conditions caused by the worsening weather, while those already in Europe living in the tented “jungle” of Calais or the makeshift camps in Rome are being forced to prepare for the freezing weather.

Estefanos says she met a group of Eritreans in Rome last week who were already shivering: “You could see they were freezing, they didn’t have much clothing. It wasn’t even that cold.”

Voices of Eritrean refugees

Estefanos’ weekly show, Voices of Eritrean refugees, airs every Thursday on Radio Erena.

The host offers practical advice to listeners, and has been known to intervene when refugees are in serious danger. “Most of the phone calls in the summer time are from boats that are in distress [in the Mediterranean] … I call the Italian Navy and they are safe,” she says.

Radio Erena, “an independent voice for Eritrea”, is a Tigrinya-language station which broadcasts by satellite and over internet from Paris. The shows range from practical support to culture, music and comedy programmes – like that of Yonathan Shikorinatat, who once prank-called the Eritrean energy and mining minister live on air.

“Until 2013 it was unthinkable to travel after September, now it’s non-stop,” says Estefanos. “Most are are young, they are not able to plan, they can’t think as much about the dangers.”

Of the 5,000 people said to flee Africa’s most repressive state every month the majority are young men escaping forced conscription. “The smugglers will check the weather, and if they think it’s calm enough, they’ll go,” Estefanos adds.

According to the United Nations refugee agency the Mediterranean sea is the “the deadliest route” for refugees and migrants, and whilst numbers typically swell in the summer (when the sea is calmer) people are now crossing all year round.

24-hour activist

For its impact, the production level of the radio show is basic: a microphone and a formica table in Estefanos’ kitchen where she lives in Sweden.

Sometimes she’ll give out her mobile number, encouraging people in need to call her, while others find her number on the grapevine. “The Eritrean community is not that big,” she explains. “Everybody knows somebody.”

With the phone ringing all the time the “24-hour activist”, as she jokes, has gotten used to always being on call.

Currently, she’s receiving a lot of questions about Europe’s relocation policy, a deal agreed by European states – with bitter acceptance from some – to impose mandatory quotas of refugees to be resettled across the region.

“Most Eritreans I speak to don’t realise they aren’t eligible because they arrived in Europe before April this year,” she explains.

She often speaks to others in Sweden trying to stay under the radar before they can claim asylum. According to rules known as the Dublin III regulation, refugees must be processed in the first country they arrive in – which for a lot of Eritreans is Italy.

If refugees are caught living elsewhere they can be deported back to the first country they were registered, but after 18 months they count as having “absconded” and can apply for asylum in their new location. Estefanos describes the case of one Eritrean who was deported to Italy 25 times.

“There are a hundreds and hundreds living in hiding here [in Sweden] … If we are going to grant these people asylum anyway, why do we make them survive for a year and a half without going to school, relying on others for a roof over their heads?”

Ghost boat

It’s a huge responsibility for one person to bear, but Estefanos doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

She was recently part the “ghost boat” launch, a initiative spearheaded by the website Medium and a group of journalists seeking to find out what happened to a vessel carrying 243 Eritrean refugees from Libya to Italy which vanished in 2014.

As a video made by al-Jazeera explains, some aboard the boat phoned their relatives to say they were set to leave, but that was the last anyone heard.

The campaign endeavours to forensically examine the evidence – from weather forecasts to claims that the boat never left – to determine what happened.

“We need to know if they are being held hostage somewhere,” says Estefanos, “or if they are dead so their family can put them to rest.”

Glimmers of humanity

In the deluge of desperation there are some glimmers of humanity that shine through. In August, Estefanos received a call from a group of Eritreans who had been kidnapped by Isis in Libya. They were calling her to say they had escaped.

To her surprise she already knew one of the hostages – she had helped him a few years ago when he was kidnapped on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

“For years I was talking to hostages on a daily basis, when they die, part of your heart breaks,” she says.

Estefanos says she is now considering going to Sudan where she says refugees are being illegally deported to Eritrea but she’s not sure if it’s safe – she is a public figure, outspoken about the Eritrean government who are operating there.

The problem is, the activist explains, “there are so many things happening in the world, so many stories, but so little time.”

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